The first decade and a half of the career of the Plastic People of the Universe, a rock group who were banned and imprisoned in Communist Czechoslovakia, is documented in a newly released DVD compilation of material that is frequently on the raw side but rarely less than absorbing.
Some of the videos gathered on “The Plastic People of the Universe 1969–1985” were shot live at concerts that the band were forced to perform clandestinely (usually outside the more closely monitored Prague) when the authorities refused to grant them a permit.
Other parts consist of experimental and documentary shorts – featuring, among others, the PPU’s friend and champion, and future Czech president, Václav Havel – soundtracked by the band’s sometimes abrasive music.
While some of the footage’s directors were professional filmmakers (including the renowned documentarian Jan Špáta), others were amateurs who happened to be in the group’s circle. Very little of the material has been widely seen before now.
“It’s a record of an interesting aspect of alternative culture under very difficult times,” one of the collection’s producers, the Prague-based U.S. documentary maker Keith Jones, told Czech Position. “What surprised me was how well-documented the scene was. It’s a kind of pop-culture archaeology when you find something that good.”
Jones and his associates came by the material in a number of ways, frequently involving detective work. Perhaps the most fascinating story is attached to the earliest footage, a 10-minute film simply entitled “The Plastic People of the Universe,” which was made by Cesar de Ferrari, a Uruguayan who studied at Prague’s FAMU film school at the turn of the 1970s.
The film had been long forgotten by its maker until a few years ago, when Ivan Bierhanzl, a former PPU member and another of the DVD’s producers, managed to track him down in Montevideo. It transpired that the tape had been gathering dust at the South American’s parental home.
Hippy ‘Hard Day’s Night’
Sections of de Ferrari’s film bring to mind a slightly deranged, hippy equivalent of the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” with Plastic People including the late bassist and group leader Milan “Mejla” Hlavsa, keyboardist and guitarist Josef “Pepa” Janíček, and artistic director Ivan Martin Jirous (a highly regarded Czech poet who died last November) seen cavorting about in various locations in and near Prague. Some of the early Pink Floyd-like, studio-recorded songs heard on this tape have not been preserved elsewhere. ‘These absolutely non-mainstream guys in weird little corners of the country were preserving this stuff in a really dedicated way.’
Other material on the freshly released DVD was found in the private collections of individuals formerly active on the Czechoslovak underground scene of which the Plastic People were the most significant representatives.
“These absolutely non-mainstream guys in weird little corners of the country were preserving this stuff in a really dedicated way. The archivists of underground culture are total hobbyists,” says Jones, adding that many such people had tired of repression in the Communist era and gone into a kind of internal exile in rural areas where they could live in relative peace.
The influence of U.S. musicians Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and The Velvet Underground is abundantly clear in the early footage on the compilation, with the PPU (named after a Zappa track) delivering ramshackle live cover version of their songs, prior to a later switch to singing exclusively in Czech.
Changes in the group’s line-up were frequent, with one of the most significant additions the saxophonist Vratislav “Vráťa” Brabenec, who first appears on the DVD in a sequence recorded at a behind-closed-doors show in a rehearsal space in Prague’s Holešovice in 1972. In another film, the musician is seen passed out on stage, evidently inebriated, while his band mates play on around him.
© YouTube When Vratislav Brabenec joined the Plastic People in 1972 they adopted a more progressive sound, as documented on their debut album “Egon Bondy's Happy Hearts Club Banned,” which was recorded in 1974 but not released officially in Czechoslovakia
The arrest of the group’s members and associates on disorderly conduct charges after the PPU had appeared at an unauthorized festival in 1976 – and the subsequent jailing of Jirous and Brabenec for 18 and eight months, respectively – was the direct inspiration for the establishment of the Charter 77 human rights document, which called on the Communist authorities to honor their commitment to international treaties.
And on the oil drums, Mr. Václav Havel
One of most important figures in the Charter 77 movement was the dissident playwright Václav Havel, an intellectual whose horizons were broadened when he became friends with the wild and long-haired “Plastics,” who had always said they weren’t political – they simply wanted to express themselves.
The future Czechoslovak and Czech president appears in three films on the DVD: hosting a performance of the group's “Pašijové hry velikonoční” (“Passion Play”) in the barn at his Hradeček country home in 1978, as an “actor” in “Inventura” (“Inventory”), a 1979 experimental short (in one amusing sequence, he mimes drumming dramatically on oil drums), and attending the recording of incidental music for his play “Pokoušení” (“Temptation”) in the mid 1980s.
Jones says the presence of the late president has led to increased interest in the DVD, which was launched recently at the Václav Havel Library’s exhibition space at the capital’s Montmartre café.
“I showed the three films that he’s in and a large group of people, including his brother Ivan, sat and watched them.” says the filmmaker. “It was nice to see them there, and close that circle.”
“It brings to light something that people implicitly know anyway – that Havel was a music enthusiast and was a fan and a friend of this band,” says Jones. “Being able to see this stuff puts it more into the human context. It’s a different side to Havel.”
“The Plastic People of the Universe 1969–1985” has been issued by Levné knihy and is now on sale for CZK 99 at the discount retailer’s extensive network of stores. Meanwhile, the group (who split in 1988 but reformed in 1997 and have been performing regularly ever since) are putting on a rare performance of the “Passion Play” at Prague’s Archa Theatre on Tuesday (April 3).
— Ian Willoughby is a Prague-based freelance journalist